Kei car (or keijidōsha, kanji: 軽自動車, "light automobile", pronounced [keːdʑidoːɕa]), refers to the Japanese vehicle category for the smallest highway-legal passenger cars, with restricted dimensions and engine capacity. Similar Japanese categories exist for microvans and kei trucks. These vehicles are most often the Japanese equivalent of the European Union's A-segment "city cars".
The kei category was created by the Japanese government in 1949, and the regulations have been revised several times since. These regulations specify a maximum vehicle size, engine capacity, and power output, so that owners may enjoy both tax and insurance benefits. In most rural areas, they are also exempted from the shako shomeisho (車庫証明書) parking space ownership requirement (as street parking is usually prohibited in Japan).
Kei cars have become very successful in Japan, consisting of over one-third of domestic new-car sales in fiscal year 2016, despite dropping from a record 40% market share in 2013 after the government increased kei car taxes by 50% in 2014. In 2018, seven of the 10 top-selling models were kei cars, including the top four, all boxy passenger vans: the Honda N-Box, Suzuki Spacia, Nissan Dayz, and Daihatsu Tanto.
In export markets, the genre is generally too small and specialized for most models to be profitable. Notable exceptions exist, for instance the Suzuki Alto and Daihatsu Cuore, which have been exported consistently from around 1980. Kei cars are not only popular with the elderly, but also with youths and younger families because of their affordability and ease of use.
Nearly all kei cars have been designed and manufactured in Japan, but a version of the German-made Smart Fortwo was briefly imported and officially classified as a kei car, and since then, the British Caterham 7 160 has also received such classification.
Kei cars feature yellow license plates (with black numbers on a yellow background for private use, and yellow numbers on a black background for commercial use), earning them the name "yellow-plate cars" in English-speaking circles. Japanese government regulations limit the physical size, engine power, and engine displacement of kei cars. Kei cars have also been subject to other restrictions, such as lower speed limits; vehicles are equipped with a warning chime that sounds if being driven too fast.
Kei cars are often available with forced-induction engines, automatic and continuously variable transmissions, front-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive.
|Date||Max. length||Max. width||Max. height||Max. displacement||Max. power|
|8 July 1949||2.8 m (9.2 ft)||1.0 m (3.3 ft)||2.0 m (6.6 ft)||150 cc (9.2 cu in)||100 cc (6.1 cu in)||—|
|26 July 1950||3.0 m (9.8 ft)||1.3 m (4.3 ft)||300 cc (18.3 cu in)||200 cc (12.2 cu in)|
|16 August 1951||360 cc (22.0 cu in)||240 cc (14.6 cu in)|
|1 April 1955||360 cc (22.0 cu in)|
|1 January 1976||3.2 m (10.5 ft)||1.4 m (4.6 ft)||550 cc (33.6 cu in)|
|1 January 1990||3.3 m (10.8 ft)||660 cc (40.3 cu in)||64 PS (47 kW; 63 hp)|
|1 October 1998||3.4 m (11.2 ft)||1.48 m (4.9 ft)|
The kei legal class originated in the era following the end of World War Two, when most Japanese citizens could not afford a full-sized car, though many had enough money to buy a motorcycle. To promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer alternative delivery vehicles to small business and shop owners, the kei category and standards were created. Originally limited to a displacement of only 150 cc (or just 100 cc for two-stroke engines) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually expanded in 1950, 1951, and 1955 to make kei car production more attractive to manufacturers.
In 1955, the displacement limit increased to 360 cc for both two-stroke and four-stroke engines, resulting in several new kei car models beginning production in the following years. These included the 1955 Suzuki Suzulight and the 1958 Subaru 360, the first mass-produced kei car, which were finally able to fill people's need for basic transportation without being too severely compromised. In 1955, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry also set forth goals to develop a "national car" that was larger than kei cars produced at the time. This goal influenced Japanese automobile manufacturers to determine how best to focus their product development efforts for kei cars or the larger "national" cars. The small exterior dimensions and engine displacement reflected the driving environment in Japan, with speed limits in Japan realistically not exceeding 40 km/h (24.9 mph) in urban areas. Kei cars were not allowed to be driven any faster than 40 km/h until the mid-1960s, when the kei speed limit was increased to 60 km/h (37.3 mph).
The class then went through a period of ever increasing sophistication, with an automatic transmission appearing in the Honda N360 in August 1968, and front disc brakes becoming available on a number of sporting kei cars, beginning with the Honda Z GS of January 1970. Power outputs also kept climbing, reaching a peak with the 40 PS (29 kW; 39 hp) Daihatsu Fellow Max SS of July 1970. Sales increased steadily, reaching a peak of 750,000 in 1970.
Until 31 December 1974, kei cars used smaller license plates than regular cars, at 230 mm × 125 mm (9.1 in × 4.9 in). From 1975, they received medium-sized standard plates, which are 330 mm × 165 mm (13.0 in × 6.5 in). To set them apart from regular passenger cars, the plates were now yellow and black rather than white and green.
Throughout the 1970s, the government kept whittling away at the benefits offered to kei vehicles, which combined with ever stricter emissions standards to lower sales drastically through the first half of the decade. Honda and Mazda withdrew from the shrinking passenger kei car market in 1974 and 1976, respectively, although they both maintained a limited offering of commercial vehicles. Sales had been steadily declining, reaching a low of 150,000 passenger cars in 1975, 80% less than 1970 sales.
Emissions laws were another problem for the kei car industry in the mid-1970s. From 1973 to 1978, emissions standards were to be tightened in four steps. Meeting the stricter standards, which were to be introduced in 1975, would be problematic for manufacturers of kei cars. This was particularly hard for Daihatsu and Suzuki, which focused on two-stroke engines, and especially Suzuki, a relatively small company whose entire lineup consisted of two-stroke kei cars. Daihatsu, though, had both the engineering backing and powerful connections of their owner, Toyota, to aid them in meeting the new requirements. All manufacturers of kei cars were clamoring for increased engine displacement and vehicle size limits, claiming that the emissions standards could not be met with a functional 360-cc engine. In the end, the Japanese legislature relented, increasing the overall length and width restrictions by 200 mm (7.9 in) and 100 mm (3.9 in), respectively. Engine size was increased to 550 cc, taking effect from 1 January 1976. The new standards were announced on 26 August 1975, leaving very little time for manufacturers to revise their designs to take advantage of the new limits.
Most manufacturers were somewhat surprised by the decision; having expected a 500 cc (30.5 cu in) limit, they had already developed new engines to fit such restrictions. These new engines were quickly introduced, usually mounted within widened bodies of existing models. These interim versions, with displacements ranging between 443 and 490 cc, were "feelers", developed to see if a continued market existed for the kei car. As sales improved, these engines only lasted for a model year or so until manufacturers had the time to develop "full-sized" engines. Only Daihatsu had a 550 cc engine ready and thus managed to avoid developing transitional engines that did not take full advantage of the new regulations. Kei car sales remained stagnant, however; while combined passenger and commercial kei car sales reached 700,000 for the first time since 1974, the small cars still lost market share in a quickly growing market.
As the kei cars became larger and more powerful, another benefit appeared as exports increased considerably. In particular, export sales of kei trucks increased, while kei passenger car exports increased at a lower rate. In 1976, the number of exported kei cars and trucks combined was 74,633 (up 171% year-on-year), despite exports of passenger kei cars decreasing. In 1980, another record year occurred as exports climbed 80.3% (to 94,301 units), of which 77.6% were microtrucks. Nearly 17% of exports went to Europe, dwarfed by Chile, which took nearly a quarter of the exported kei vehicles. Due to the difficult economic environment, low-priced cars sold well, and 1981 marked another successful year as Japanese kei car sales reached their highest since 1970 (at 1,229,809 units for cars and trucks).
As the 1980s progressed, kei cars became increasingly refined, losing their utilitarian origins, as Japanese customers became ever better off. Features such as four-wheel drive, turbochargers, and air conditioning began to become available on kei-car models. Conversely, van versions of kei hatchbacks were now marketed to non-business customers to take advantage of even lower taxation and more lenient emissions rules; this move in the market was spearheaded by Suzuki with their 1979 Alto, and competitors soon followed suit, with the Subaru Family Rex and the Daihatsu Mira appearing within a year's time.
In the 1980s, the speed limit for kei cars was 80 km/h (50 mph). Government rules also mandated a warning chime to alert the driver if this speed was exceeded.
The kei car regulations were revised in March 1990, allowing engines a displacement increase of 110 cc (6.7 cu in), or twenty percent, while the maximum length was increased by 100 mm (3.9 in). These changes occurred during the 1990s Japanese economic bubble, and all manufacturers quickly developed new models to suit. Within five months, all major kei models had switched from 550 cc to 660 cc engines.
For the first time, a power limit of 64 PS (47 kW; 63 hp) was also applied in addition to the limit on engine size, in response to the ever-increasing power outputs available with turbocharging and multivalve technologies popularized in the late 1980s. Engine technology was also shared with sports bikes, which are designed more for rider enjoyment and less so for fuel economy, going against the idea of small people's cars and putting the kei cars' tax and structural advantages at risk of a governmental backlash. This power limit matched the highest output reached by any kei manufacturer at the time and was a gentlemen's agreement amongst the manufacturers in an effort to avoid a kei-class horsepower war. The only kei car to have exceeded this limit is the Caterham 7 160, a lightweight British sports car that was not expected to qualify as a kei car, though it is small enough (in dimensions and displacement) to fit the regulations. Its engine is rated at 80 hp (60 kW; 81 PS)—since that is how the car is homologated in the United Kingdom, Japanese authorities told the importer that its power should remain unchanged. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association also self-imposes a speed limit of 140 km/h (87 mph) for kei cars.
In a rare example of an overseas mass-produced model being sold as a kei car in Japan, a kei version of the Smart Fortwo (called the Smart K) was sold in Japan by Yanase from 2001 to 2004. The Smart K used revised rear fenders and reduced tire dimensions and track width to conform to kei regulations. The model was not a success, and sold the fewest examples of a kei car when it was marketed.
The Suzuki Wagon R was the best-selling kei car in Japan from 2003 to 2008. Starting in 2011, Toyota entered the kei car market for the first time. The resulting Toyota Pixis Space, a rebadged Daihatsu Move Conte, was expected to increase competition in that market. Nissan and Mitsubishi began to jointly produce the Mitsubishi eK (also sold as the Nissan Dayz and formerly the Nissan Otti). Honda's kei car lineup—the N-one, N-Box, and N-WGN—accounts for around a quarter of its overall sales.
In April 2014, the Japanese government significantly reduced advantages for kei car owners, imposing a higher sales tax, a higher gasoline tax, and a higher kei car tax, the last of which was raised by 50 percent—greatly reducing tax benefits compared to regular-sized cars.
Daihatsu, Honda, Suzuki and Nissan-Mitsubishi (through the NMKV joint venture) are currently the only mass-production manufacturers of kei cars. Mazda sells rebadged Suzuki models, Toyota and Subaru sell badge-engineered Daihatsu models, and Nissan-Mitsubishi sources their commercial kei models from Suzuki.
The electric version of the Mitsubishi i, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV was the first electric kei car. This was launched for fleet purchasers in 2009 in the Japanese domestic market. It became available to the wider public as well as the global market in 2010. The i-MiEV uses a 47 kW (63 hp) permanent-magnet synchronous motor powered by a 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. It can charge overnight in 14 hours from home 100-volt mains, or in 30 minutes from quick-charging stations installed at fleet locations. Its range is 100 km (62 mi) as tested by the US EPA, and 160 km (99 mi) as tested by the Japanese Transport Ministry. It was the world's first mass-produced electric car, and the first electric car to sell more than 10,000 units.
Rebadged and slightly updated variants of the i-MiEV were also sold in Europe as the Peugeot iOn and Citroën C-Zero. In 2011, Mitsubishi launched the MINICAB-MiEV; a battery electric version of the Minicab microvan, borrowing the drivetrain and key components from the i-MiEV. As of March 2015, over 50,000 units across all variants (including the two minicab versions sold in Japan) have been sold worldwide since 2009. Production of the i-MiEV was discontinued in 2021.
In May 2022, NMKV launched the Nissan-badged Sakura and the Mitsubishi-badged eK X EV in the Japanese domestic market. These models have a 20 kWh lithium-ion battery pack with an estimated WLTC range of 180 km (110 mi). Both use a single electric motor with a maximum output of 47 kW (63 hp; 64 PS). The eK X EV is a battery-electric version of the Mitsubishi eK X, and the Sakura is an update to Nissan's Dayz line. The two are eligible for EV purchase incentives in Japan, and as of June 2022, are also the cheapest new BEVs from a major Japanese manufacturer.
The vehicle excise tax levy is 2% of the purchase price, compared to 3% for a regular car. A 24-month insurance contract typically costs ¥18,980 at the time of registration versus ¥22,470 for a larger car.
An automobile weight tax also is levied: The amount is ¥13,200 and ¥8,800 for a three- and two-year period, respectively, as compared to the ¥18,900 and ¥12,600 charged for larger-sized passenger cars. The savings are thus more than 30% in both cases. This weight tax is paid after the vehicle has passed its safety inspection. The required road tax is based on the engine's displacement.
Main article: Automotive industry in Japan § Kei cars sales rank
Honda Life Step Van
Suzuki Fronte Coupé
Suzuki Cervo(exported as the Suzuki SC100)
Mitsubishi eK X space
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